Online Friendships: Real or Illusion?

friendship onlineYesterday, Frank Viola published a guest post on his blog, Beyond Evangelical, by Stephanie Bennett titled, “The ILLUSIONARY Nature of Online Friendships via Facebook & Other Social Media

Some of the claims Stephanie makes in the blog post include:

One main challenge is in dealing with something we might call a hyper-knowing of others. This is that tendency to be much more open with those we don’t live with – sharing personal (and increasingly private) information about ourselves with those whom we have no primary responsibility or actual embodied experience. When this happens, people often feel they are closer to their distant online friends than they are to the people around them. The main problem here is that the online friendship is mostly illusional…

As we transfer more and more of our human communication to mediated environments (such as Facebook) we inadvertently limit our ability to grow, both spiritually and in our relationships. Instead of depth of relationship we are more apt to gain relationships that are sparse, superficial, and unsatisfying.

Trust, loyalty, faithfulness — all are developed in an environment that is tangible, actual – a place where people are meeting face-to-face, sharing Christ through words and deeds.

Social Media Pitfalls

I’ve been using social media long enough to know there are certainly valid concerns about social media.

  • There is a danger in sharing too much personal information online.
  • There is a danger in pursuing social media popularity because it feels good to have lots of friends and likes and comments.
  • There is a danger that one could end up with lots of superficial online connections at the expense of deep face-to-face relationship.

What concerns me about the article is it seems to indicate these problems are virtual certainties. There are potential pitfalls with social media, but aren’t they avoidable? And aren’t there also ways social media can enhance the relationships we have with offline friends and even lead to new, genuine friendships?

Stories and Anecdotal Evidence

We could talk theorhetically about this all day, but I don’t think it would be nearly as helpful as sharing real-life stories.

I’ll go first, Kim Reynolds and Jackie Bigford are acquaintances of mine. They met each other through social media and have now started a business, Savvy Media Marketing, together.

A second example, I forget exactly when I first connected with Mark Merrill who is founder of Family First and All Pro Dad, but I believe it was either through Twitter or his blog. We interacted through Twitter and then had lunch together. Because of my friendship with Mark, I became more involved in the All Pro Dad chapter at my kids’ school, and when Mark’s book All Pro Dad was published, I helped spread the word about it through a couple posts on my LiveIntentionally.org blog  and social media.

If we can agree that social media has both upside and downside for deep relationships, then we can move the conversation beyond “yes or no” to “how and when.”

Can you share any stories about how social media has deepened any or your relationships or led to new, meaningful friendships?  Or to be even-handed, do you have any stories to share of where social media has harmed friendships or led you or a friend to withdraw?

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

14 Responses to “Online Friendships: Real or Illusion?”

  1. Thanks for sharing Paul. I am probably a bit bias on this topic. I've been amazed by the many friendships that started online and ended up significant and real in my life.

    In fact I am traveling to Haiti in December and one of the members on my team I met on Twitter two years ago. Since then she has visited me in my home, we've supported each other through the many big events of life, and now we have the chance to serve 138 orphans shoulder to shoulder / heart to heart.

    This truly one small example of what is possible. Everyday my collection of stories like this grows. I'm grateful for all that God is making possible in such a time as this. We receive in life what we choose to bring to it and it becomes holy when it's daily submitted to God.

    There is validity in the converation regarding 'dark' side of online relationships. No doubt social media platforms can be a breeding ground for pride. That's why we need to submit it ALL to God's authority and direction.

    (And for the record, I will always hold dear an IRL sushi lunch with a dear twitter/blogger friend in Florida.)

    • PaulSteinbrueck Jul 30, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Thanks Tami. I appreciate you sharing the example of the friend you'll be traveling with to Haiti. Awesome example and way to go on stepping out of your comfort zone and serving people in need.

      I think it's also important to recognize the basic use of social media – broadcasting updates to the public – does very little to build relationships. Relationships are developed when people take the next step and use the public updates as a context to engage – reading and posting comments, exchanging private messages, interacting on each others blogs, meeting in person… like sushi lunches :)

  2. I agree with your conclusions, Paul. Simply put, "virtual" relationships are not very different from physical (face-to-face) relationships. Folks who are prone to tell all in person will probably spill their guts online as well.

    The simple truth is that each person can have only a small number of close friends because relationship requires proximity and time spent together. However, the number of acquaintances it is possible to cultivate is much larger.

    It's not difficult to tell who is really interested in us online and who is not. The same is true when the introduction is real (not online.) Most folks online are more interested in their own message, their own angst, their own sales numbers, or their own visibility. Few really care WHO follows then, but HOW MANY follow them.

    My parents "met" when they became pen pals during the Korean Conflict. They never spoke or met until my dad was discharged. Six months after they first spoke they were married. The marriage endured until my mother died more than 40 years later.

    What's important isn't the mechanism by which two people become acquainted, but who they are and what character they bring to the table.

    • PaulSteinbrueck Jul 30, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Lynn, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that a relationship is less about the medium and more about "who they are and what character they bring to the table."

      Thanks for sharing your parents story! My wife and I have a similar story where we after we met we emailed for a year, seeing each other just 3 times over that year before I moved to be closer to her.

      One important difference between writing letters/email/phone and social media is that those media are all one-to-one, where as social media is one to many. If that's all social media is, then it would be difficult for a real friendship to form. Where relationships are formed in social media is when people post comments, reply, send private messages, initiate chats, etc. In other words, dialogue.

  3. Abdallah Al-Hakim Jul 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I am a strong believer in the power of social online conversations in turning into relationship. I have used twitter in the past as my main outlet for social media but over the past few months I switching more to commenting and that process led me to connect with William Mougayar (CEO of Engagio). This in turn led to a job opportunity with his company, Engagio, which is focused on becoming a social conversations network. The story of how engagio started is also a testament to the power of online relationships – Here is one article http://startupflavor.com/engagio-a-startup-story-

  4. Tommy Simpson Jul 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    You need to be careful in your associations with people on the net. But you can make true friendships through the social medias. My wife and I have been communicating for some time with a couple from England. We have never met them face to face, but this is going to change. We are planning on going to England sometime at the end of this year or the start of next. They have invited us to stay at their home while there which is near London, and they are taking a couple of days off to show us some of the local sights. Good friends can be made on the social medias if you are honest and cautious.

  5. I met my wife in an online chatroom ("Christian") on yahoo in 1999. We married a year later. We met online but got to know each other through the phone and during short visits.

    I have seen great value in online "support" groups where some demographics (ie, Christian Single Parents) can find people of like issues and converse. Though that group disbanded some 8 years ago, many of the people keep in touch through e-mail and Face Book. I also saw when things went bad quickly in a large group based on books – it only took one to wreck what had taken many several years to develop.

    One of the biggest negative issues is time. Some people lose all sense of priorities for real life stuff because of the excitement web stuff/relationships can produce. I think it is about balance and intentionality. Social media stuff has great connecting powers. I think it will magnify what your life is like offline. If you are "cruising" in real life, you'll do that online. If you struggle with boundaries and such, you will do it online. Some people get really absorbed by online stuff, so much that it is almost their fatal flaw. You have to know yourself and control what you are involved with whether you are online or not. You have to be responsible for yourself, and too many people aren't.

    • PaulSteinbrueck Aug 13, 2012 at 6:24 am

      Steve, that's neat that you and your wife met in an online chatroom. And I agree that online support groups can be very helpful, especially since often there may be no offline support group in a person's local area dealing with the particular issue a person is dealing with. Great advice concerning balance and intentionality as well!

  6. William Mayor Aug 6, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I would have to say that online friendships can be illusionary, but they need not be. My wife and I have made two trips where we specifically timed them so that we could meet people we knew online. Likewise one individual has done the same to come to meet my wife and I. With two other people, we have purposely timed day trips to the same location to meet with individuals we met on line. All of these experiences have been very pleasant, and we have arranged other chances to get together. However, the best one was when one individual, who shares a relatively obscure passion with me, told me that since his family does not share the passion that he is planning to leave me his collection in his will. He states that he would prefer to give it to someone who would appreciate it rather than have it sold off in pieces or possibly just end up being thrown out.

  7. This is really true. I have experienced many online friendships to be just as weak as a bar of chocolate. One of my online friend's friends beaten me up outside my own college for just a misunderstanding about him.

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